Responsible business should make our world happier

September 18, 2018

It’s about time responsible business considered its contribution to the overall life satisfaction of stakeholders. Richard Hardyment summarises the main thrust of his new book – “The Wellbeing Purpose”.

What is responsible and sustainable business really all about? Many professionals in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) say they are working through business to enhance the environment, invest in communities and protect human rights. But what does it all add up? To apply the buzzword of the moment: what’s the purpose of it all?

Responsible business should be about making life better. It’s about people and their wellbeing in terms of whether all those touched by a business – suppliers, employees, consumers and communities – feel that their lives are flourishing.  But when was the last time you heard a company say that they wanted to make life happier?

Apply this question to yourself for a moment. What is the purpose of your life? Philosophers, poets, religious leaders and songwriters have pondered this for millennia. According to Aristotle, the purpose of our existence is to lead a full and worthy life. That is the surest route to contentment (or eudaemonia as he termed it).

Aristotle defined wellbeing as his summum bonum – the “chief good”. As he put it: “happiness, more than anything, is absolutely final. For we always choose it for the sake of itself and never for the sake of something else.” By this, he meant that we want to be happy for its own sake, not because it leads to some other goal. All other things – safety, freedom, status, money – are a means to that end. A rounded and satisfied life is a self-evident goal for everyone.  Can the same logic be applied to responsible business?

The science of happiness has advanced rapidly in recent decades. Academics have worked out, quite conclusively, which actions (by governments, companies and citizens) do most to raise and reduce life satisfaction. Wellbeing is made up of short-term moods (like joy or frustration) alongside deeper feelings of overall life satisfaction. The latter is typically measured in surveys by asking people to rate their “life as a whole” on a scale from 0 to 10. Whilst this is highly subjective, the results have been shown to be reliable: comparable across cultures; consistent over time for individuals.

There has been rising interest from governments in new measures of wellbeing. In the UK, the National Wellbeing Programme is collects data on citizens’ feelings about life. In the United States, Maryland and Vermont have experimented with measures of wellbeing. Bhutan is the poster-child of the wellbeing movement with a sovereign-sanctioned priority of “gross national happiness”.

If governments are toying with supplementing gross national product with gross national happiness, isn’t it time for companies to consider their contribution? Whilst employee welfare is a well-trodden field, there has been a deafening silence from the private sector when it comes to life satisfaction across the value chain.

There are three things that any company can do to make life feel better for more people. In my book, The Wellbeing Purpose, I call these the three vital ingredients to wellbeing.

  1. The first is to create worthwhile and meaningful jobs. Occupations provide a sense of purpose, particularly when employees have autonomy and flexibility. The impact of having a job is so great on individual happiness that practically any job is better than unemployment. This thinking can be applied right across the value chain, particularly creating employment through supply chains and distribution networks.
  2. Secondly, there is health. Our physical and mental wellness has one of the biggest influences on how we feel about life. Companies affect this through their working conditions as much as the products and services they produce. Marketing and advertising has a massive impact on perceptions of value and self-esteem. Companies can innovate for wellbeing through developing new products, business models and employment practices that improve health as a route to better long-term life satisfaction.
  3. Finally, there is connectivity. Personal relationships – at work, at home, and in communities – shape how everyone feels about life. Again, beyond the factory gates and office walls, companies affect relationships through their procurement practices, innovation pipeline and community activities.

Means Versus Ends

So how much CSR and sustainable business today is really making life better? The honest answer is we don’t know. No-one has seriously attempted to measure life satisfaction across the global footprint of a business. Doing so is vital if we want to focus our attention, energy and investment where it can make the biggest impact on life.

All responsible and sustainable business activities should be thought of as a means to an end. Issues such as human rights or health and safety matter in their own right. But probe a little deeper and ask yourself: why do they really matter? They matter because they result in unhappy people. Put more forcefully, degrading and unhealthy working conditions are not in of themselves a problem. These issues deserve to be tackled by forward-thinking businesses because they make millions of people utterly miserable.

Climate change does not matter in some abstract sense. It matters because the current effects on vulnerable communities, and future risk of catastrophe, present real barriers to leading a fulfilling life. The aim of responsible business should not be to provide decent jobs or protect the environment for their own sake. It should be to do all this because it helps people to get more out of life. Sustainable business should really be all about making life happier.

The distinction between means and the ultimate end might sound academic. But the difference between tackling the causes or consequences of unhappiness is fundamental. With a wellbeing lens, some activities are clearly more socially valuable than others. For example, philanthropic activities are truly impactful when they improve health and relationships. That might bias community investment towards life-saving aid or reducing loneliness, rather than cultural causes.

There is a clear business case for wellbeing. There is strong evidence that a happier workforce is more motivated, less sick, more creative and more productive. Happier customers are more loyal – and spend more. Happier suppliers can be more resilient; happier communities more stable. Wellbeing can provide a holistic framework, spurring a cycle of business benefits that support one and other.

In any business environment, investment is finite. Choices need to be made. Without a clear end goal, managers risk being buffeted by whichever wind blows that day. The science of wellbeing would suggest giving more time and flexibility is the fastest route to raising quality of life.

Responsible and sustainable business means little unless we can agree on the type of world we are trying to create. By agreeing that life satisfaction for stakeholders is the right end goal, we can tease out the best actions for companies to take. We can guide the investments to create a truly sustainable future that has people and their feelings at its heart. The ultimate objective for each of us as individuals is to lead a happy and fulfilled life. It is surely the only logical aspiration for responsible business too.


Richard Hardyments new book, The Wellbeing Purpose, was published by Greenleaf on 6 September 2018. He is a Director at Corporate Citizenship.